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cycling for dummies, or who'll stop the rain?

 

Cycling for Dummies, or Who’ll Stop the Rain?
Glen Lake to Grand Rapids, MI
October 12 - 13, 2012

October 12, 2012
Glen Lake to Cadillac

70.4 miles. Dep: 7:53 a.m. Arr: 3:33 p.m. Trip Time: 7:40 Ride Time: 6:01
Avg. Speed: 11.6 mph Max. Speed: 28.8 mph.

The forecast for this morning’s start was 37 degrees and rain mixed with snow. Fortunately the precipitation had stopped by the time I left. Unfortunately, it was colder than forecast, and the temperature dropped as I moved away from the lake. (There is no way to get away from Glen Lake without climbing a steep hill–it’s a 1 ½ mile long steady and sometimes steep ascent which starts almost immediately at the foot of my drive–so by the time I realized how cold it was I was drenched in sweat).

It went below freezing and stayed there for a while. Well before I reached Lake Ann, just 13 miles into my ride, I realized my open-fingered cycling gloves weren’t going to cut it. I entered the Lake Ann General Store wearing my bike helmet because my fingers were too numb to work the clasp. I grabbed a cup of coffee and asked if they had gloves. They did, and I found a nice pair of lightweight but insulated hunter’s gloves. Camo gloves–an essential component of every cyclist’s wardrobe.

I spent 20 minutes talking weather, crops and Tigers baseball with the two guys who worked there, and the occasional customer. That’s how long it took for my hands to thaw. Ten miles later while passing Tootie’s Diner, in Interlochen, I decided since I could no longer feel my toes, perhaps it was time for breakfast. And so it went, all day long. By the end it had warmed up to the low 40's.

I saw plenty of deer this morning, and flocks of ducks swimming on mist-shrouded lakes, their movement causing the only ripples on the otherwise mirrored surface. Riding down CR-669 I saw a giant while cloud hovering just above the trees. Because it hung stationary over the spot where Sweet Lake lay, I knew it was just the lake’s exhalation in the frigid dawn.

I saw young mothers waiting with their children for the school bus. I saw acts of kindness and consideration. I was the recipient of raised thumbs, friendly toots of the horn and passing waves. I was out riding in the country, riding through the America that many would have us believe no longer exists, while others maintain that that is a good thing. For them that long lost America existed behind a scrim of violence and abuse, a place where bitter people clung to their Bibles and their guns. Funny, when I ride past a tidy farm house with signs in the front yard offering brown eggs and quilts, raspberries and potatoes for sale, with the proviso that no sales will be made on Sunday, what I feel more than anything else is hope, hope that things will never change.

South of Interlochen I turned onto Youker Road, which features one of Michigan’s hardest miles. Actually it’s just three-quarters of a mile, but it goes straight up. Last time I rode it I made it about  60% of the way up before I dismounted. This time I made it 75% of the way. I eventually walked part of three hills today. Most of my training this year has been downstate, where hills are rare. Plus, I neglected to account for how much of a drag the additional 30 pounds of gear would be. Actually, I didn’t neglect to account for that. I chose to ignore it, telling myself my legs were equal to the task. Well, they weren’t.

Once having ascended the hill, the road rolled along a shoulder overlooking rolling hills broken up by blocks of red, yellow and golden leaved trees, and stands of elegant white pines, with windbreaks lined with graceful poplar trees. I watched a wood pigeon cross a field to my left, beating its way toward a stand of trees. I assumed it would land when it arrived, but it kept to the air, soaring above and across the woodland. It was an idyllic vista which became spectacular when the sun poked out from behind the clouds. It lit the world on fire. The leaves blazed crimson and gold, the grass of the hayfields turned an emerald green, and the sky a luminescent blue.

This is why, I told myself in answer to those skeptical friends’ head-shaking inquiries, this is why I ride.

Sadly, one of the rules of the road is that euphoria carries its own price. In this case that price was the second half of the ride. It turned into a bit of a slog. M -113 was busier than I remembered, and the shoulder not as wide. The traffic was nearly constant. US-131 was better at first, until the main road spun off to the freeway and the business loop, with a narrow, crumbly shoulder, remained heavily traveled with a preponderance of heavy trucks. The nice thing about semis is when they pass you they pull you in their wake 2 - 3 miles an hour faster. The bad thing is if you don’t brace for them they can pull you under their wheels. Though that has never happened to me, I imagine it would ruin the trip.

The obligatory dog chase came on 131. The dog started braying well before I reached his lot, though I assumed a dog left unchained alongside a busy road like that must be properly trained. I was wrong. He hit the boundary and kept on coming. I shouted “No!” which usually worked, though not in this case. I veered onto the gravelly shoulder as I accelerated, but luckily it was firm enough to hold me. Back on the pavement I attained sufficient speed to discourage the mutt. The near-happy ending came when he finally gave up the chase. I heard the screech of brakes behind me and turning, saw a red Jeep swerve. Sadly, the driver managed to avoid the dog.

I made it to Cadillac, where I checked into Hermann’s European Hotel. My third time here, it is a gem. Spotless, big rooms where they let me keep my bike indoors. I went to dinner at Hermann’s European Café, had a morel cream soups–excellent; a small caesar–so-so; and a char broiled Ribeye steak smothered in sauteed onions and portobelo mushrooms, swimming in a “Detroit-Style” zip sauce, which was out of this world. I had a glass of Wirra Wirra “Catapult,” which was a blend of 95% Shiraz and 5% Viognier, followed by an Argentinian Malbec. Both were great complements to the meal.

After dinner I went for a walk alongside Lake Cadillac, which glimmered in the sunset afterglow. A perfect ending to the day. I may have to cling to this memory tomorrow, because the forecast is for temperatures around freezing and a 100% chance of rain. The good news is tomorrow’s ride is on the White Pine Trail, which is railroad grade and generally downhill. It will be interesting to see how much has been paved and what shape the rest of it is in with the rain.

October 13, 2012
Cadillac to Rockford, MI
86.98 miles. Dep: 7:20 a.m. Arr: 6:40 p.m.
Trip Time: 11:20    Ride Time: 8:11
Avg. Speed: 10.6 mph Max Speed: 28.8 mph


When I woke up, the temperature was 41 and the sidewalks were dry. I thought maybe I had caught a break. But then the temperature began to fall, and five minutes before I left, so did the rain. It didn’t let up for the next four hours, and out of the eight hours I rode, maybe one of them was dry. I was soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone after 16 miles, so I stopped in Leroy for breakfast. I took off my shoes and leggings, looking more like some demented vagrant than a long distance cyclist. There were a lot of people in the diner, and most of them stared at me. A couple young guys wearing camouflage coats kept their eyes on me. They didn’t smile. I didn’t feel a lot of love. It was a strange position for me to be in, the complete opposite of yesterday’s rural euphoria.

After an hour I headed back out, though I hadn’t exactly reached equilibrium. I was shivering so hard it was hard to keep the bike upright. But I toughed it out, and once I got up to speed I began to generate enough heat to keep hypothermia at bay for a while. I covered another 14 miles to Reed City, where the White Pine intersects with the Pere Marquette Trail. There are sign posts with mileage to destinations in four directions. Quite rare. I had planned to take a photo, but it was too wet and I was too uncomfortable. In fact, my main priority at this point was to get out of the weather. What I really wanted was a Laundromat. I needed to dry my clothes, and more than anything, I needed to warm up my feet, which felt like two slabs of ice.

Luckily there was a Laundromat in town. I grabbed a change of clothes from my pannier and changed in the bathroom before tossing everything in a dryer for half-an-hour. It took a long time to get my socks off as my feet were painfully swollen. They were also a sickly pale white. I figured it couldn’t be frostbite because it wasn’t below freezing. It was only later that I thought to take wind chill into effect. A little time on Google returned the information that one can get frostbite from wind chill. Another twenty minutes or so could have caused permanent damage. As it was, it was two days before I could walk normally as it felt like somebody had taken a baseball bat to the soles of my feet.

By the time my clothes were dry the temperature had climbed into the mid-40's, and that marked the last of my serious weather-related discomfort. Even though it continued to rain, and my feet were soon soaked again, I wasn’t in any pain. Plus with my undershirt, biking jersey and fleece vest (bought two days before at The Cyclery in Glen Arbor–just in case–it proved to be a life saver) still toasty from the dryer, my core was warm again.

The day, in fact the whole trip, was dominated by the weather. I took few pictures. On Friday it was too cold to take off my gloves. On Saturday, it was too wet to remove my camera from its plastic bag. The rain put a damper on my appreciation of the White Pine Trail, especially the half that hasn’t yet been paved. The waterlogged surface was too soft to allow much speed, especially in the face of a steadily freshening south wind.

It was hard to maintain speeds above 10 miles per hour, and thanks to the hazards of mud puddles and fallen branches, it was difficult to divert my eyes from the trail for more than a few seconds at a time. So I rode through deep woods where the floor of yellow leaves contrasted sharply with the wet black of naked branches, and swollen streams wound across the ground, or through placid marshes where rain hissed upon the surface of the water, and I was unable to enjoy the experience the way I had intended.

I did stop on the old railroad bridge spanning the Muskegon River. It was a rare opportunity to stand above the middle of a river and study it in peace. Usually when viewing a river from a bridge you are buffeted by cars and trucks roaring past. It inhibits your enjoyment, and silence is not an option. But standing on the bike trail bridge in the rain, I was alone, and I spent a good while just absorbing the flow. There is something about a broad river flowing freely which elevates the soul. It was the best part of my day.

I had planned to ride to Grand Rapids, where Mary was driving to meet me. We planned to meet Sheila, a contemporary of our son, and her new husband, at 7:00, and then enjoy a pleasant dinner. Spending almost two hours off my bike and indoors over the course of the first 30 miles, plus the impossibility of sustaining any reasonable speed on the soggy trail, put paid to that plan. There was a road which ran parallel to the trail, and I sampled it during the last 25-mile-long unpaved stretch, but it was heavily traveled and it had no shoulder. It was the most hazardous type of road cycling, especially in the rain as drivers, never the most attentive of creatures, are even less so in inclement weather.

The balance of the day was simply a matter of damage control. Mary was scheduled to leave around 4:00 p.m., having hosted a tea for twenty or so guests that afternoon, so I wanted to get as far down the trail as I could to limit the length and time of her detour, and to salvage as much of the night as possible.

I managed to cover 87 miles, reaching the charming town of Rockford, where I had just enough time to change into civilian clothes in a public restroom, and to order a coffee from a café before Mary pulled up outside. As we pulled away, with Mary driving as I was still too mentally disheveled to trust myself behind the wheel, I was completely disoriented. It was the first time I’d gone immediately from a long bike trip to sitting in a moving car. Mary pilled out, turned onto a busy highway and accelerated. I thought she was insane to be going so recklessly fast. Didn’t she realize it was raining? What was she trying to do, kill us both? I glanced at the speedometer. She was only doing 50.

That was a proper conclusion to a trip in which nothing was as it had been expected. I set out in the wrong weather with the wrong gear, assuming things would be better than they turned out to be. It was touch and go, and I didn’t quite reach my destination, but I know in time I won’t remember when my feet felt like blocks of ice or my fingers were too numb to undo my helmet clasp, but I will recall riding the White Pine Trail in autumn, rolling along a golden corridor lined with sentinels bowing in their uniforms of cardinal and yellow while my wheels slished through the carpet of soggy fallen leaves.

INTO THE WIND--EAST TAWAS TO GROSSE POINTE FARMS, AUG. 21 - 24, 2010

August 21, 2010: East Tawas to Bay City, MI
Dep. 10:50 a.m. Arr: 6:30 p.m. 77.26 miles. 11.8 mph.


I had intended to cycle up to East Tawas, and meet Mary there, but too many doctors’ appointments derailed that plan. Instead, we drove there, to visit the Smiths, and I biked back. Mary Lou was Mary’s college roommate in Southern California. Though she was from Denver, her husband, Hubie, was raised in  Bay City. His family has a cottage at the Tawas Beach Club, so Mary gets to see her old friend every year. We arrived around noon on the 19th, and Hubie and I went out for a shakedown ride on my newly overhauled bike. More than 33 miles in a little over two hours. Not bad. It was my first experience with taking turns riding point, and it really made a difference. I could have used some of that help over the next two days.

I got a late start the next morning, following a leisurely breakfast and conversation, and it cost me. The last 40 miles into a stiff headwind didn’t help, but it was the lack of four hours I usually use to rest and regroup that hurt. I dragged into Bay City on my last legs.

The trip started nicely. It was cool, and a steady rain was falling. It let up by the time I reached East Tawas, though, and after a ride along the pier which arced around the town’s marina, I headed south. The sky remained overcast, and a north wind carried me happily down a bike trail alongside US 23. The trail periodically dipped into the woods overlooking the cottage-dotted shoreline of Lake Huron.

The trees were a mixture of hardwoods, including ashes. I had never really noticed them, until the emerald ash borer struck. Even when they cut them down in the median along Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Road, I wasn’t sure what they had looked like before. Lately though, I’ve come to appreciate these proud trees. They aren’t powerful, like oaks, or playful like maples. They lack beeches’ majesty, the elegance of elms, or the delicacy of birches. The ash ignores girth, choosing instead to soar above the lesser trees. One reason I never noticed them is their trunks are so tall that their foliage is often obscured by leaves sprouting from the maple branches embracing them.

When the trail gave out I was left to the mercies of drivers on US-23. But the shoulder was wide and the steady traffic broke up the air, allowing me to pedal easily at 16 - 17 mph. It was starting to look like an easy day, the perfect way to start a long trip. I had to stop and take a picture of the “Tawas Indian Gift Shop.” I wanted to stop and ask about their return policy.

Then the wind shifted direction, and it freshened. I turned onto a side road, in search of Arenac State Highway, riding through pretty wetlands, the roadside verges dappled with Queen Anne’s Lace, chicory, clover, thistle and tansy. Still, the wind kept reminding me of the effort this ride was costing. Then, to make matters worse, the road I was looking for, which the map showed as Conway, didn’t seem to exist. Perhaps the scale was slightly off, I thought. Then I saw the Dead End sign in the distance and turned back, a three-mile detour on a day already growing too long. I found a road, called Manor, which was the one I wanted, though when its name changed about four miles later, it was to Conrad. It never became Conway.

It’s rough when you can’t trust your map, though for the rest of that day and all of the next, I didn’t need one. All I had to do was turn my face into the wind.

I reached Arenac State Highway during a brief downpour. I didn’t mind the rain. It was cool, and the wind died while it fell. I rode for an hour at the cusp of the storm, heading into sunlight, with an enormous black cloud looming up behind. Sometimes, when I stopped to rest, the rain would catch me, but before long, I got south of it. For the next forty miles it was sunny, hot, and windy. By then it was 3:30, so I didn’t really have time to rest.

One of my objectives today was the Saginaw Bay Rail-Trail. I managed to locate it at the trail head, which is not as easy as it sounds since most road maps give short shrift to eccentricities like bike trails. This trail was unlike any other I’d ridden. Maintenance consisted of dumping heavy loads of large grained gravel, grading and abandoning it. Grass grew everywhere; it was like riding on a very firm lawn. I could only manage 7 - 9 mph on the rugged surface, but at least the dense foliage blocked the wind.

It was four miles of relative bliss until the trail dumped me in some farmer’s back yard. Two big, black, unchained dogs attacked. Riding well down the second sprocket it was hard to get much speed as the trail led to a dirt road. I tried the tactic of turning, pointing, and shouting, “No!” It worked for one, but the other kept coming. I was pedaling harder, and had turned to see where the hound was when I hit a sandy patch. My bike started torqueing. I lost control and went off the road. Fortunately, there was a bank instead of a ditch, which slowed me down and helped me regain my balance. I don’t know if the dog was bewildered by my violent zig zags, or if he was satisfied that he had driven me away, but he stopped his pursuit.

Still, it was an outrage that those hostile dogs were allowed to roam free within attack range of a public trail. I don’t know if it was hostility or ignorance, but I hope  that farmer’s crop fails. Somehow during the pursuit I hurt my right wrist, and later in the day, during a map check by the side of a busy road, when I reached to lift the back end of the bike off the road, I felt a sharp pain. When it didn’t get any better over the course of the evening, it put my next day’s ride in question.

Tired, cranky, sore and hurting, I reached the Doubletree Hotel, overlooking the Saginaw River  in downtown Bay City.  After icing my knees and a long soak, I wandered down to the riverwalk and watched the river awhile. There is something about a river which I find simultaneously soothing and exciting. Maybe it’s the subtle power of the steady current, the music of the lapping swells, or the mystery of its incessant flow.

I headed back to the hotel for a much-deserved dinner, and spied a cyclist sitting at a table on the terrace. He was chatting with the couple at a neighboring table, who, it turned out had also been riding that day, thirty-five miles along a local rail-trail. They invited me to join them, and we compared the different kind of riding we did. The lone cyclist, Steve Goss, was a former Bay City Councilman. Susan Gotfried was a former Bay County Commissioner. She said she had been the first woman commissioner, and, at 29, the youngest. I observed that she must have been the youngest woman commissioner as well, the truth, if not the wisdom of which, both she and her husband Michael acknowledged. Despite my mastery of the obvious, they allowed me to sit with them while we discussed the city, its changes, and the challenges it faced. Then hunger overwhelmed me and I went into the restaurant. The meal was okay. The rib eye was delicious, but the service was glacial.

Bay City, built on gas, oil, chemicals, lumber, sugar beets and the transportation of same, displays that characteristic Midwestern show of faded glory. Better than many, the city is struggling to remake itself, as they all try to do, into a locus of tourism, and to make amends to its long-neglected, or abused, waterfront.

In this case it is the Saginaw River which bisects the city, lined with Riverwalks on either bank. It’s not quite Paris, though the domed City Hall and a pair of church spires bid fair regard, and the young lovers snuggling on the benches at night would be hard pressed to explain why the Seine would make a superior background pour l’amour.

August 22, 2010: Bay City - Port Austin, MI
Dep: 7:54 a.m. Arr: 3:50 p.m. Distance: 71.36 miles. 11.7 mph.


This was a much better day, at least emotionally. My wrist was manageable, though I still battled stiff headwinds all day. With the extra three hours I was able to take it easy, rest frequently, and keep the stress off my knee.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night thanks to loud mouths in the hallway. Plus my legs kept cramping up. Thigh muscle, which is a new one for me. I did a better job of hydrating today, even buying a jumbo Powerade in Caseville. That was my contribution to the boost in commerce generated by the madness that is Cheeseburger in Caseville. A twelve-year-old festival, it was inspired by Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise.

Every store front, and most houses in town were decorated with grass skirts. Pink flamingoes abounded and parrots proliferated. Every diner, restaurant, bar, gas station and real estate office had set up a grill and was cranking out cheeseburgers. It was so over the top, it worked. The sidewalks were jammed, and traffic backed up for over a mile. Even ten miles out of town people had grass skirts on their decks and flamingoes hanging from the trees. At one house, six people sat in lawn chairs at the end of their driveway, with signs set out Burma Shave style, reading Honk If You Love, followed by a picture of a cheeseburger. They waved at each car that honked, and needless to say, almost every car honked. When I pedaled past, I said “Beep, beep.” They seemed to appreciate that.

Long before Caseville, I had stopped for breakfast, near Wisner, about 20 miles east of Bay City, deeply immersed in agricultural America. The diner was an adjunct to a BP convenience mart, and though I wasn’t real confident, I was hungry. I ordered the Farmer’s Breakfast, consisting of three eggs over easy, meat, hash browns and Texas toast. The waitress didn’t ask me what kind of meat, which I figured meant whatever was there was what I got. I read the Sunday Bay City paper and crossed my fingers. Breakfast, when it came, was fantastic. The reason she didn’t ask what kind of meat was that the breakfast came with bacon, sausage and ham. The eggs were runny, and served with a side order of smoked salmonella.

After breakfast I had about five hours left of a really tough slog. Naturally the day’s dog chase came when I was headed due north, down in the second sprocket again, ticking the pedals at about 7 mph. A woman was unloading groceries from the trunk of her car when her dog saw me. She said, “No, Killer,” or something to that effect, when he started to bark. She said it so calmly and complacently that I didn’t interpret him as a threat. Not, that is, until he was almost on me. I was pleased to discover I could get up to 18 mph in such a low gear, and even more so to learn that Killer was the kind of dog who hit the brakes when I bellowed “No!” Looking back, I noticed Killer’s owner running out to the road. No doubt she was concerned that my harsh tone might have damaged her poor baby’s self-esteem. I graced her with a monodigital imprecation, and moved on, confident that, at that distance, she had interpreted the gesture as an apology for traumatizing her homicidal hound.

At one point, riding along a lane between two fields, a dozen or more goldfinches flitted from one side of the road to the other in front of me. It was as if I were herding them. Every third telephone pole, two mourning doves sat on the wire, turning their heads from side to side and bobbing them as if commenting on the action.

As I neared Port Austin, pedaling along the wide shoulder of a busy M - 25, along the Lake Huron shore or suddenly deep within the woods, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Port Austin. I hoped there would be an inn or bed and breakfast in town, close to a restaurant where I could land a big dinner, though none of the other towns along the way had offered such a resource. On the run into town I passed a couple lake shore resorts with lounge and restaurant nearby, meaning even if there was nothing in town or east of it, I had a place to stay with only minimal backtracking.

However, I found the delightfully charming Lake Vista Resort. What could have been a typical cheap tourist motel with adjunct cabins, was transformed through loving care and attention to detail into a charming, magical haven. Mommies and Daddies abounded, and the swimming pool, overlooking the wind-tossed lake was filled with splashing little kids. In the distance, the breakwater angled into the lake and spumes of crashing waves marched forcefully along its steel-cased wall.

August 23, 201l: Port Austin - Port Huron, MI
Dep: 7:05 a.m. Arr: 3:53 p.m.. 92.06 miles. 13.6 mph.


After two days of fighting headwinds, it was a joy to ride 92 miles with the wind at my back. Actually, the first few miles were into the wind as I headed up to Pte. Aux Barques, in keeping with my commitment to ride as close to the shore as possible. Once I reached the Tip o’ the Thumb however, the road turned south and I began to chew up miles. There is something exhilarating about effortlessly pedaling at 18 mph, the only sound the hum of your tires and the rush of air in your ears.

I stopped at Huron City, originally a company town for R. B. Hubbard lumber company. It burned down in 1871 and 1881. The 1871 fire was part of a string of  conflagrations that destroyed Chicago, as well as Michigan cities and towns from Manistee to Port Huron. The latter fire burned from September 5 - 8. It consumed more than one million acres in Sanilac and Huron counties alone, killing 125 people and leaving thousands homeless. The nascent Red Cross provided aid to the victims, marking the organization’s first involvement in disaster relief.

Disastrous fires were commonplace in Michigan during the latter third of the nineteenth century, mainly because aggressive, clear cut lumbering practices left pyres of kindling scattered across the land. Once lit, it burned out of control. It was ironic that companies like R. B. Hubbard laid the grounds for their own destruction.

Yet Hubbard endured, rebuilding after each fire. In 1892 William Lyon Phelps, a noted scholar, writer and professor at Yale University, married into the Hubbard family and did much of his writing in the Hubbard mansion, called Seven Gables. Phelps’ niece, Carolyn Hubbard Parcells, inherited Huron City in 1939. Seven years later she and her husband, Charles Parcells, Sr., established the William Lyon Phelps Foundation to preserve the town’s buildings. In 1995 Huron City was listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.

Back on the road, I enjoyed riding through pleasant countryside. Cornfields carpeted the undulating landscape, sweeping up to distant tree lines. Always, off to the left, Lake Huron was visible. The road crossed gently rolling hills, none too difficult to scale, especially with the tailwind. The terrain was unexpected, as the west side of the thumb is so flat.

At one point, where the forest grew close to the road, I saw a dozen or more deer standing just inside the tree line, stolidly gazing out, waiting for dark when they could run in front of cars. There were two bucks among them, one with six points, the other, four.

I stopped for breakfast at All Season Café in Port Hope. A typical small town diner where everybody knows everybody else, and everybody has a nice word for everybody they meet, including lone cyclists just passing through. I enjoyed a good, hearty breakfast.

I spent some time exploring Harbor Beach, which boasts of the World’s Greatest Man-Made Harbor. The harbor was built to accommodate freighters unloading coal to fuel the power plant. There were several other active industrial concerns, making Harbor Beach the rare small American town that has retained its industry. The relative prosperity of the community was on display.

At a roadside park south of Port Sanilac I ran into a cyclist far more heavily laden than I was, with panniers front and back, and a trailer besides. He was from Richmond, Indiana, and was on his way to Syracuse, NY, by way of Missouri, Chicago and the Upper Peninsula. I gave him some suggestions for his route through Southern Ontario, and went on my way. That evening, after I arrived in Port Huron, iced my knees, showered and dressed, while on a long walking tour of town, I saw him pedaling slowly southward. I gave a wave. He waved back, but out of uniform, I doubt he recognized me.

Susan Gotfried, in Bay City, had recommended the Thomas Edison Inn. Perched beneath the twin spans of the Blue Water Bridge, overlooking the St. Clair River, there’s a lot to like. And a lot to take a second look at. The Inn is getting tired.

I was directed to Bistro 1882, just across the way, under the soaring bridge. Named for the age of the building, Bistro 1882 features two levels of seating, and an eclectic blend of modern tables and chairs, black marble bar top, alabaster lamps and naked brick walls. A sophisticated wine list offered a range of affordable and drinkable wines as well as more pricy but still well-valued selections. Sara, bartender, hostess, server and font of information, was attentive, helpful and very friendly, all while tending to four tables and the glutton at the bar, (slurping mussels and sampling different wines), making each party feel they were the sole focus of her attention. Not an easy thing to accomplish.

After dinner, I stood at the railing along the Riverwalk, and watched the volume of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron compress into the channel of the St. Clair River. The current, especially driven by the north wind, was particularly strong. It was a great chance to see the freighters up close. The river bends by the Inn, and watching them steam north, it seems as if they are on a collision course with the shore, but the turn they began hundreds of yards downstream eventually takes hold, and they stay in the channel and out of my room.

August 24, 2010 Port Huron - Grosse Pointe Farms, MI
Dep: 8:10 a.m. Arr: 4:50 p.m. 76.11 Miles. 11.7 mph.


I slept in, and even after I awoke I had no great desire to get on the road. My legs were dead, and unlike most days when they start to loosen up after the first five miles or so, they remained lifeless all day long. Which made for some tough riding, even with a favorable wind, and the knowledge that my trip would soon be over.

I made my way out of Port Huron, sticking close to the shoreline, and gazing across the river at the massive complex of refineries, power and chemical plants polluting the Canadian shore. I picked up a new highway, M - 29. Like the others on this trip it was busy, but featured the same safe, wide shoulder. Plus it was supplemented with the Bridge to Bay Rail-Trail, which came and went, offering alternatives to the roadside all the way to Anchor Bay, on Lake St. Clair.

The river is lined with cottages for the most part, though there is a trend to tearing them down and erecting garish McMansions in their place. They look so out of place. I’ve never understood the tendency some people have in their housing, vehicles, and even their dress, to shout “Hey, look at me!” That’s the effect of these monstrously overbuilt houses, or maybe they’re crying, “I’m rich! I’m rich! Oh my God, I’m underwater!”

The road runs close to the water for most of the length of the St. Clair River, and then hugs the shore of Lake St. Clair all the way to New Baltimore. It was good riding along the St. Clair Flats Wildlife Refuge, a giant marsh which helps comprise the significant freshwater delta. I stopped for lunch at The Raft, and enjoyed a big, sloppy Reuben.

At New Baltimore M - 29 turned west, so I picked up southbound Jefferson, which I would follow most of the remaining twenty-five  miles. I did have to swing west around Selfridge Air National Guard base, which involved some iffy riding on a heavily-traveled Gratiot Ave. Macomb County has been working for years to build a 70-mile-long mixed-use loop, of which the Bridge to Bay Trail is part. One of the last legs involves a shoreline route through Selfridge. This will be a great addition as Gratiot is not cycle friendly.

I detoured through downtown Mt. Clemons to avoid road works on Gratiot, and then returned to it for just a few hundred yards before reaching  the Clinton River Spillway, and the bike path which took me back to Jefferson. This was all familiar territory, though I rode it differently, sticking to the sidewalks as I crept along at a mere 7 mph. I was on my last legs on the last leg of a long, tough trip. It was only four days, but at nearly 80 miles a day it was more strenuous than most, especially after facing the headwinds the first two days. I’m sure in time I’ll recall this trip, like all the others, as one  filled with pleasure and delight.

You can see more photos from the trip in the photography folder.

 

The Money's in the Ground--Detroit to Grand Rapids, June 3 - 5, 2009

June 3, 2009: Grosse Pointe to Mason

97.82 Miles

 

 

 

It was with some trepidation that I embarked on this trip. Having ridden fewer than 250 miles this year, and only once having gone as far as 35 at one time, I was seriously undertrained. I mentioned this to a couple of friends, but not to my wife, Mary, whom I was supposed to meet in three days’ time in Grand Rapids, where she was attending the Herb Society of America’s Annual Meeting.

Still, when I set out at 6:45, with the new day dawning, it was the familiar sense of excitement which held sway. I had originally planned to cross the northern edge of Detroit on Seven Mile Road. I thought this would provide a provocative perspective as the road originates in the suburban idyll of Grosse Pointe, and descends into some of the most impoverished neighbors of this impoverished city. From there it bisects part of Detroit’s growing Arab population before bursting into the bustle of some of the region’s newer, more prosperous suburbs.

I had dismissed friends’ concerns about my route, claiming I was more concerned about the busy rush hour boulevards of Livonia than I was the early morning denizens of Detroit. It was just white suburban timidity, I believed. However, when Detroit residents urged me to reconsider, I decided to look for another way west.

On my first long trip I took Nine Mile Road, and had made decent progress, so I opted for a reprise of that route. Things had changed in the nine years since that first trip. The surface, for one thing. It looked like not a single inch had been repaved in the last decade. Much of the time it was so rough, and the traffic so heavy, that I was forced to retreat to the sidewalk. That wasn’t in any better shape, but at least there was no danger of getting hit when I swerved to avoid the bigger holes.

Another change since the first trip was the plentitude of abandoned businesses. Factory after tool-and-die shop stood empty; dusty lots inside chain link fences, faded signs sometimes hanging crooked over cracked and broken windows. It is the collateral damage from the implosion of The Big Three. It was painful to witness, and will only become more painful as the months and years pass.

Drivers on the narrow, crumbling, four-lane road showed little inclination to give me space. Several times I felt the rush of air on my arm as someone’s side view mirror passed mere inches away. Perhaps, I thought, these drivers, heading to one of the remaining factories, saw bicyclists as contributors to their economic jeopardy. Maybe I should have worn a sign on my back announcing that my other vehicle is a Ford Escape Hybrid. Then I reconsidered. They might think I was a tree hugger. It would be safer if it said my other vehicle was an SUV. I could save the hybrid sign for when I got closer to Ann Arbor.

I made good time crossing the broad metropolitan swath, leaving the gritty industrial decay of Eastpointe and Warren behind for the trendy chic of Ferndale. In Oak Park I passed Orthodox Jewish boys on their way to school, dressed in black hats, white shirts and black pants, complete with prayer shawls. I rolled through Southfield, with the towers of the satellite downtown gleaming in the rising sun, and pushed into the outlying suburbs. At one point, in Farmington, I paused on a bridge overlooking the Rouge River, and while I stood there, two deer emerged from the woods to drink, a refreshing hint of the open lands awaiting me.

South of Novi the pavement ended, but the surface was solid and the riding easy. I stopped next to a quiet, lonely cemetery glowing in the rising sun. It was remarkably peaceful, despite the signs of the steadily encroaching city. By now I was in an area where every mile or two a chunk of farm land had been bulldozed into submission, with winding streets going nowhere, lined by oversized houses on undersized lots. Occasionally I would see a new subdivision which had barely gotten underway when the downturn struck. There would be one or two completed houses surrounded by vacant lots in varying states of demolition. What a lonely, meaningless existence it must be to occupy one of those homes.

Before long I passed under US-23, where Nine Mile became M36, a busy two lane road with a wide shoulder. This took me into Hamburg, a pleasant little exurban community which marked the start of the Lakelands Trail State Park, a 23-mile trail which would take me to Stockbridge, where I planned to end my day. Of course, as is typical of trips like this, very little went according to plan from this point forward. Luckily I stopped for an early lunch at the Hamburg Pub, where I enjoyed a triple decker BLT, while listening to the locals talk hockey. Good food, and good fuel.

The first six miles were paved, and I rolled through peaceful woods and along freshly tilled fields. I stopped at a bridge to enjoy the view of the Huron River, which meandered placidly on its way to Lake Erie. However, just past the Pinckney Depot, an old, preserved but unused station left over from railroad days, the trail began to deteriorate. This section is subject to heavy equestrian usage. While horses are pretty to look at, and no doubt fun to ride, if you like that sort of thing, they are hell on unpaved trails. The crushed limestone surface was badly pitted, making the ride an unpleasantly juddering ordeal. "At least I don’t have to worry about falling asleep," I thought.

Due to serious neglect on the part of the State Park system, the trail began to lose its integrity, and I was forced to hop on and off my bicycle as I kept hitting soft spots. Before long, I had to dismount completely, and wheel my bike through three-inch deep sand. I had to cover three miles before the trail crossed Highway 36 again. Just when I was thinking it couldn’t get any worse, the trail entered a boggy area where, thanks to the previous week’s rains, the sand became a muddy quagmire, which accumulated on my shoes as I trudged through. I had to kick my feet against a tree trunk to dislodge enough of the gunk from the soles to allow me to, finally, remount at the highway.

The Lakelands Trail is a disgrace. Having ridden trails in seven states and three countries, I can confidently state that this is by far the most pathetic excuse for a mixed-use trail I have ever seen. It is the height of dishonesty for the State of Michigan to advertise this travesty as a mixed-use trail. Equestrian traffic has utterly destroyed it. Short of spending the time and money to rebuild it, and to maintain it thereafter, the State should admit what they have, and call it the Mid-Michigan Bridle Trail.

I stopped at a car wash in Gregory to hose off my bike and shoes, and rejoined the trail which seemed to be in better shape. It wasn’t, it turned out, but at least it was dry, and it was only six more miles to Stockbridge. Naturally when I arrived in this attractive village I discovered there was no lodging, which meant I had another eighteen miles to ride to reach Mason, where, with two interchanges on US-127, a major north-south freeway, I would be sure to find a motel. So much for knocking off at 80 miles, though.

The ride north was actually quite enjoyable. The terrain consisted of gently rolling hills bisected by quiet country roads. The land was fresh, and the crops were coming up. The money’s in the ground, I thought, and now it’s time for nature to work her magic. There was something soothing, and yet thrilling about the newness of the landscape. It was such a contrast from the views of autumn, when I usually take my trips. Instead of tired land quiescent in the approach of winter, here it was vibrant, and pulsing with life. I loved passing cornfields, where thin green lines stretched across the gray-brown soil.

Mason is the Ingham County seat, and it wears it history with pride. The town is dominated by Courthouse Square, where the County Courthouse itself squats proudly. Built in 1904, it was designed by Edwin A. Boyd, and has been called "an exceptional example of the Federal Style of architecture." Built of berea sandstone with a black buckingham slate roof, the structure features a detailed berea sandstone tower capped by a ridged iron dome.

Ingham County was named for Samuel Ingham, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, though Ingham never actually set foot in his eponymous county. The county is primarily agricultural, except for the industrial capital city of Lansing. Neighboring East Lansing hosts Michigan State University, the oldest Agricultural College in the country, and the prototype for 72 land grant colleges established under the Morrill Act of 1862.

There is a four-mile bike trail called the Hayhoe River Trail in Mason, which runs along Sycamore Creek. Maple Grove, an old, serene, and beautiful cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the town. Mason was almost the death of me as I discovered there were no motels at the interchanges. A ride through town, though pleasant, wasn’t promising. I saw no old hotels or inns, no bed and breakfasts, and it was growing increasingly more likely that I would have to ride an additional ten miles to Lansing. Not exactly the first day I had anticipated.

I finally stopped at a gas station where the attendant informed me that Heb’s Inn was just another quarter-mile up the road. Heb’s is one of those old-style motels which used to line the nation’s highways and loiter on the edges of towns. This one had seen better days, but from my perspective, it was still seeing days, and nights, and for this night it would be home. It was clean, safe and cheap, but unfortunately, the ice machine was broken so my knees would have to forego their long- anticipated treatment. A quick shower, a three-mile stroll around town and dinner at the Courthouse Grill, and I was in bed by 9:30.

June 4, 2009: Mason to Ionia

66.46 Miles.

 

After riding 98 miles on Day One, I was gratified to discover that my legs worked just fine today. I started with a detour, riding two miles along the Hayhoe River Trail. Very nicely maintained, it snakes along Sycamore Creek. Unfortunately, it runs due south, and my destination was to the west, so I turned around and hit the road. Leaving Highway 36 behind, I headed west on Columbia Road, rolling through more farm land interspersed with woods and placidly burbling creeks.

Passing through Columbia I made my first contact with the Grand River. At this point it flows northward, to Lansing, where it passes through the MSU campus before heading off to the northwest to Lyons. There it absorbs the flow of the Maple and turns sharply to the west. Along the way the Flat and the Thornapple Rivers join it, until Ada, where it turns again to the northwest. At a point some five miles north of Grand Rapids, it swings to the south, through the center of the city. From there it veers back to the west until it flows into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven.

There being no wind, the riding was easy, as I rolled past Amish homesteads and Centennial Farms. At one point I saw a homemade sign boasting "Gizzard Hall, Population 5." The 5 had been crossed out, and replaced with a 1. As I passed the substantial, well-maintained house I saw a "For Sale by Owner" sign. It was somehow poignant.

I reached Vermontville after 37 miles, where it seemed like a good idea to stop for breakfast at the Sugar Hut Café. After a hearty meal of eggs, bacon and hash browns, washed down with several cups of coffee, and enlivened by the young waitress’ recounting of her nascent appreciation for cycling with her boyfriend, I explored the village.

Vermontville was founded in 1836 by the Reverend Sylvester Cochrane, who recruited thirty "colonists" from his native Vermont to form a new community in the wild and free wilderness of Michigan. After months of searching, representatives of the colonists found the site of the present town. Heavily wooded with maple trees, and watered by the Thornapple River, it promised to be just like home, with better soil. In 1844 Cochrane called upon the villagers to build the Vermontville Academy, " a house in which we may instruct our children and worship the Lord." The Academy was advertised as "an ideal location for an academy, since there was little to distract the children from their work." Vermontville hosts the annual Maple Sugar Festival the last full weekend in April.

While I was at breakfast a brisk wind picked up. Happily, it blew from the south, and Vermontville was the point where I turned north. About four miles up the road I stopped in a dale where Scipio Creek flowed through a marsh, and I enjoyed a symphony of bull frogs and twittering birds. While there I saw a cedar waxwing, my first in the wild. An otherwise unremarkable brownish bird, its tail feathers are enlivened with a splash of yellow, as if it had been dipped in a can of paint.

Before long I joined M66, a heavily-traveled highway which featured a wide shoulder, and I made good time along it until it crossed I-96. Here the pavement deteriorated dramatically, and the last eight miles into Ionia promised to be harrowing. The bad surface was exacerbated by the slalom course of orange construction barrels dotting the shoulder. At least they were going to repave the road it seemed. And not just any repaving, this project was, as the signs trumpeted, "Funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act." So this was one of the "shovel-ready" projects which was going to save America?

The road was in such disrepair it obviously was on the schedule already. How was funding this project going to improve the economy? If the Federal Government hadn’t paid for it, the State Government would have. Rather than calling it the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, perhaps they should have called it the Bloated State and Local Budget Preservation Act.

I reached Ionia just after crossing the Grand River, alongside of which I noticed a bike trail. That bore promise for exploration. Among other attractions, Ionia offers an American Inn on the edge of downtown. This is where I stopped for the night. The clerk mentioned that another cyclist had left just that morning. "Hey, maybe I should advertise in Biking Magazines," he said. I thought that was a good idea and gave him some suggestions on things to promote. Like the whirlpool bath in the room he rented me.

I iced my knees while I filled the tub, relaxing in a motel rarity, a recliner. Unfortunately, when the tub was half full I noticed a lack of steam rising from the water. Sure enough, there was no hot water coming from the tap. While a brighter person would have requested another room, I just shrugged and settled for a hot shower. On the other hand, it turned out there was no hot water anywhere in the room. Nothing like a good brisk shower after 66 miles on a bike.

Refreshed from the icy stream, I set out to explore Ionia. Main Street is lined with turn-of-the-century storefronts, most of which have seen better days. The rest of them were vacant. Still, there was a grand County Courthouse, made from the distinctively hued Ionia sandstone. Beyond the courthouse were several blocks of substantial houses.

One of them, the Blanchard House, was also made of Ionia sandstone. It looked remarkably like multicolored marble. In 1835, at the age of fourteen, John Celsus Blanchard "lit out for the territories" from Cayuga, New York. After working in Detroit, and Livingston and Shiawassee Counties, he walked the last 60 miles to Ionia, where he spent $50 of the $53 he had saved to buy a forty-acre farm. In 1839 he began studying law, was appointed Ionia County Prosecutor in 1850 and enjoyed a distinguished career of public service.

With its prosperous heritage so proudly displayed, it was sad to see the hard times on which the city seems to have fallen. The Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad, whose coming in 1838 opened up so much of Western Michigan, is gone. Much of the town’s industry is shuttered, and its major source of employment is the two State Prisons nearby. On the other hand, the Grand River flows through the city, and it is attractively situated. The town seems to be betting its future on tourist dollars. With the railroad ties in the process of being torn up, there is hope for an expanded rail trail. As long as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act keeps paving the roads leading into town, Ionia’s future looks bright.

June 5, 2009: Ionia to Grand Rapids

53.92 miles.

 

After a six-mile detour to ride the delightfully wooded and scenic Ionia River Trail, I headed out of town on Grand River Drive, which would carry me along the Grand River all the way to Ada. The road ran mainly through the flood plain, though occasionally it decided to climb the bluff only to dip back down after a mile or so. With wind in my face for the first time on the trip, I wasn’t pleased with the added work. Still, the land was pleasant enough, and there was very little traffic.

At one point I passed the Vosburg Block and Gravel Company. There was an ancient tractor in front of it. It looked like an early model locomotive, and it, along with the building, was abandoned and overgrown with vines. A fine example of Michigan’s Industrial Heritage, a relic from an earlier economic shakeout.

I picked up a bike trail on the outskirts of Ada, and rode it into the Twilight Zone. Or so it seemed. The town was so pretty and clean, with a nexus of bike trails and foot paths, one leading to a covered bridge over the Thornapple River. Children frolicked at the water’s edge, and the river thundered down a spillway in the distance. There were attractive shops with friendly, helpful staff, including one at the Ada Bike Shop who gave me detailed instructions for the balance of my ride into Grand Rapids.

Ada was certainly appealing, a testimony to the benefits of having a good corporate citizen in residence. In this case it was Amway, or Alticor as it is called today. Regardless of what you might think of the company’s business model or practices, it has returned a good deal of its profits, both to its base of operations, and to the nearby city of Grand Rapids. The wholesome cleanliness of the town evoked a bygone age, an evocation which became downright spooky when two clean-cut high school students greeted me with a hearty "Good afternoon, Sir!"

I left town on a bike trail which ran alongside a busy highway, sweeping up and down rolling hills and meandering through wetlands. Soon enough, as all good things must, the trail came to an end. However, armed with directions from the bike shop, I managed to pick my way across a network of busy highways, ever following the Grand, until I reach the White Pine Trail north of the city.

The White Pine Trail is a 93-mile long State Park. Extensively paved along its southern portion, it features a solid, well-maintained crushed limestone surface for most of the rest of its route. Another section is paved around Reed City, where it intersects with the Pere Marquette Trail, and again for the last four miles leading into Cadillac. I have ridden it before, and had planned to do so again after the conference, but a forecast featuring two days of thunderstorms and heavy winds convinced me to make Grand Rapids my terminus.

The White Pine Trail runs smoothly alongside the ever-widening Grand River until it ends in the town of Comstock Park. At this point Grand Rapids’ network of bike trails begins, which enables the cyclist to ride almost all the way into downtown. The trail rolls through the extensive Riverside Park, replete with a variety of recreational facilities, picnic benches, hiking trails, fishing holes and a series of signs detailing the history, geology and other interesting details of the river and its city.

After an awkward six-block detour around some road works (no indication whether this was stimulus money or just a run-of-the-mill project), I found myself on Grand Rapids’ River Walk, which ran the length of the City Center. Built to commemorate the city’s Sesquicentennial in 1988, it is a well-maintained, multilevel construction, intersecting with two pedestrian bridges, one of which leads to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. The walkway was heavily used, perhaps in part because the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts was in full swing.

It was a warm and welcome conclusion to a pleasant three-day journey through the best and worst of Michigan. From the gritty industrial decay surrounding Detroit, through pristine woods and vibrant agricultural lands, dotted with attractive, almost fairy tale towns and villages, and culminating in the lively confidence of Michigan’s Second City, this trip reminded me that the state has many strengths which, judiciously corralled, can help offset some of its weaknesses.

web tracker

Detroit to Niagara Falls  09/01/08 - 09/05/08

DAY ONE: Detroit to Wallaceburg, ONT

Distance: 71.48 miles

I set out at first light. Twenty-three minutes later, the sun rose an angry orange over a still-slumbering Lake St. Clair. It was going to be hot but I didn’t care because the wind wasn’t blowing. Though last night’s forecast threatened 10 to 15 mile-per-hour winds out of the southeast, the leaves of the passing trees were motionless. They stayed that way for the first four hours, all the way to Marine City.

I rode the St. Clair shoreline until I reached Selfridge Air National Guard base, where I had to make a long detour west to Gratiot. I wasn’t looking forward to riding that busy road, but there were no options. Fortunately, above Mt. Clemons, Gratiot has a broad, paved shoulder and no curbside parking. Which was fortunate as the traffic was heavier than I had anticipated. Heavy traffic with a wide shoulder makes for some of the best riding conditions possible as the passing cars and trucks keep the air moving. This reduces resistance, allowing the rider to churn along almost effortlessly at 20 mph.

At 21 Mile Road I turned east again, planning to return to Jefferson just north of Selfridge. Instead I turned onto Sugar Bush Road, which wound appealingly off to the northeast. Once a quiet country road meandering through farmland alongside Salt River, it now slices through rampant suburbia. This could have been a problem, the road too narrow for too many cars going too fast, but at 8:30 on Labor Day morning, there were few people out and about.

The situation changed at Jefferson, which didn’t offer much of a shoulder, and that badly broken up. After a quarter-mile, however, I found a bike lane, which led to M -29, and continued alongside that highway all the way to Marine City. Back in the days when we used to visit Harsens Island, M -29 was an overbuilt, ratty little road, and I wasn’t looking forward to riding it. So it was a pleasant surprise to find it so cyclist-friendly. There were quite a few bikes on the road, which is why it makes good sense for the State of Michigan to provide bicycle lanes and trails. Cyclo-tourism is a growing activity, one which carries the potential to bring substantial tourist dollars to our state.

Over the years New Baltimore had always seemed nothing more than a blemish on the road, an unpleasant bottleneck to be endured on the way to the island. On the bike I noticed things I never had in a car. Like Main Street. I was surprised to find a pleasant little town off the main road. It featured an Historic District, though that may be pushing it a little, and an attractive downtown.

I stopped for a break and a power bar in St. John’s Marsh, named for William St. John, the real estate developer who built The Colony, Michigan’s first exclusive gated community, whose water tower, disguised as a lighthouse, has served as a landmark since 1925. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources bought the land in 1977 in order to preserve an essential piece of the largest fresh water delta on the Great Lakes.

At Algonac, where the St. Clair River enters the delta region, the road returned to the water’s edge. I stopped at a monument to the community’s history as Speedboat Capital of the World. It was here that Gar Wood and Christopher Smith built the first of eleven record-setting speedboats. Though they combined their efforts on the first, Wood went on to build the others alone. Smith merely started the ChrisCraft Boat company. For years it was headquartered in Algonac, and even after relocating to Florida, the company kept a factory there until the 1970's. In some ways Algonac still has not recovered from that loss.

Just north of town, Algonac State Park sprawls along the St. Clair River shoreline. The campground was crammed with tents and trailers as people savored the last weekend of summer. Their faces were turned toward the river itself, which was broad and sparkling in the warming sun. Lined on both sides by houses grand and small, the river offers the vista of an aquatic lifestyle. In stark contrast to this idyllic state, chemical factories and power plants loomed along the shoreline to the north. Swirling spires of smoke and steam poured from their massive chimneys.

I could have caught a ferry to Canada from Algonac, but chose instead to ride up to Marine City, where the Blue Water Ferry beckoned. I had to go north to go east because there is no way to get your bicycle across the border in Detroit. Bikes are banned from both the tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge, and the Tunnel Bus won’t carry them, unless they are disassembled, for insurance reasons, they claim.

It cost me a dollar to cross the river, in the company of one car, and three other cyclists. Mom, Dad and teenaged son had ridden over from Sombra for breakfast, and now were returning. The father looked at my saddlebag-laden bike and said, "I bet you’re going further than we are." Since their trip would total fewer than five miles, I had to agree with him.

On the Canadian side I took the St. Clair Parkway south along the river. In spots there was a bike lane or trail, but for the most part it was just two narrow, heavily traveled lanes lined by an iffy looking gravel shoulder. It was hard to ride right on the edge of the road because the sealing tar poured into the cracks was warming in the heat, grabbing at my tires and making it hard to stay upright. Forced to ride three feet from the edge, with fairly heavy traffic roaring past at close quarters, and the day growing steadily hotter, it was something less than fun.

This was a good introduction to Canadian riding. There are few shoulders on Canadian roads. I suppose it makes sense in the second largest country in the world with fewer citizens than the state of California. It’s hard enough to keep the roads paved, let alone put in paved shoulders. Given a choice between paved shoulders and a national healthcare system, they chose the latter. As a cyclist, I thought they’d made the wrong choice, though if I were to get hit by a car, I might reconsider that conclusion.

My first day plan was to get at least to Wallaceburg, and maybe all the way to Chatham. Rolling into Wallaceburg at 12:55 p.m., I knew I had plenty of time to go further. On the other hand, it was awfully hot, and the wind had picked up. On all my other rides I tended to push it too hard the first day, and ended up paying the price for the rest of the trip. I decided to have lunch and see how I felt. I passed restaurant after restaurant. Some were closed on Mondays, others closed during lunch, and many were closed permanently. There was something tired about the town.

I finally found a little café that was open, and had a burger and fries which helped me decide that even though it was only 1:30, and Chatham was only 18 or so miles away, it was a good time to stop. I found a Days Inn on the edge of town, across from a restaurant called Crabby Joe’s, and called it a day.

DAY TWO: Wallaceburg to Port Stanley, ONT

Distance: 89.03 miles

Not a bad day, but a hard one, a long one, and a hot one; one that started out horribly, but ended nicely in a quaint little fishing village on the Lake Erie shore.

After a good night’s sleep, I stood in front of the motel, sipping coffee and waiting for dawn. The coffee came from the free continental breakfast which wasn’t supposed to start until 6:30. But everything was ready at 6:15, and so was I. While I waited, I marveled at all the cars and trucks rumbling past. 6:15 in a dinky little town? Who knew?

Finally, I started out, eschewing the busy highway 40 for the seemingly more serene Base Line Road. I pedaled east through the morning mist. Which didn’t burn off with the rising sun, but thickened, as did the traffic. Canada doesn’t have a lot of people, but it seems they all drive between Wallaceburg and Dresden at 6:30 in the morning.

The two-lane road was narrow, and the shoulder was dressed with loose gravel and sloped away from the pavement. I couldn’t ride there, and didn’t want to ride on the road, trusting drivers to pick me out of the soup and to make the correct last-minute decision to hit their brakes. There was so much oncoming traffic that they wouldn’t be able to swerve.

For the first 1 ½ hours my ride consisted of four pedal strokes, followed by a glance over my left shoulder in search of headlights. That’s how thick the fog was. I couldn’t look away for more than four strokes, or the car would be upon me. When I did see lights I quickly cleated out of my pedals, hit the brakes, and swerved onto the shoulder, planting my feet to keep from slewing over.

I finally bailed out at a crossroads, and headed south on a quieter road. Strangely, this road was not highlighted as a recommended route on the Ontario Cycling Atlas, whereas the vehicular abattoir I’d just escaped was. Maybe this was the version they sell to Americans.

I stopped for coffee and a muffin at a rustic General Store in Kent Bridge, where friendly people kept passing by and dropping in. Then, headed south again, I crossed the River Thames, a sleepy, sluggish, greenish-brown, perhaps moping that it lacks the acclaim of its more storied British cousin.

South through Ridgetown, a pleasant, still-prosperous market town. I had planned to stop at the Ridge House Museum, thinking perhaps it had something to do with the Underground Railroad which had been active in the vicinity. After wasting 15 minutes pedaling around, I finally found it. The sign said, Ridge House Museum–Restored 1875 House. No hours. No indication it was open. No suggestion why it was worthy of museum status. It looked like an 1875 house, the kind restored and lived in throughout New England, New York, and even Michigan, with no signs in front of them.

Not surprisingly, Ridgetown occupied a ridge, which was the culmination of the bluffs rising from Lake Erie. It continues pretty much uninterrupted along an east-west line, some five to eight miles north of the shore, interrupted only by the Grand River Valley, at which point the geography alters, dominated by the Niagara escarpment. Many creeks and streams originate along this ridge, and during rainy season crash thunderously down steep gullies to the lake.

I turned east on Highway 3, the Talbot Trail, at Morpeth, which was the home of Archibald Lampman, a prominent Nineteenth Century Canadian poet. He died at the age of 38 in 1899, and is buried just down the road, at the Anglican Church cemetery. Founded in 1845, the church presides over a collection of gravestones old and new, commemorating the hardscrabble existence the mostly Scottish settlers eked out of the harsh climate and fertile soil of the region. Set halfway down from the crest of the ridge, and gazing across fields of ripening corn to Lake Erie sparkling in the distance, it is an ineffably beautiful setting, evoking so much of our shared history and the indomitable will of our ancestors.

One can’t help but recall Lampman’s words:

Yet, patience–there shall come

Many great voices from

Life’s outer sea.

Hours of strange triumph,

and, when few men heed;

murmur and glimpses of eternity.

 

Of course, it’s especially easy to recall them when they’re printed on Lampman’s monument, which dominates the entrance to the cemetery.

 

Seriously, a solitary cyclist soon develops a special relationship with cemeteries. Riding on lonely back roads, crossing miles of open farmland with few towns and fewer amenities, cemeteries are the one constant resource for peaceful rest and valuable shade. Plus, as is the case with Lampman’s resting place, they often occupy sites of beauty, and offer pleasing vistas.

Highway 3 is a fine road. It’s not very wide, and of course, lacks a shoulder, but it is lightly traveled and runs along the shoulder of the ridge line, with Lake Erie rarely out of view. East of St. Thomas it becomes a racetrack for semis and is not recommended for cyclists. Fortunately, where the road veers away from the coast toward St. Thomas, new travel opportunities arise. Swinging south at Wallacetown, Fingal Line leads to Fingal, where Highway 20 runs down to Port Stanley.

 

Fingal Line runs past Port Talbot, the original settlement of Thomas Talbot, the Scotsman who settled this region, importing hundreds of families to build houses and work the land. He ruled his domain like a private fiefdom until the Provincial government assumed control in the late 1800's. A couple miles east of Port Talbot, Highway 14 runs north to Iona. Just a half-mile up the road lies the Southwold Stone Age Earthworks, erected in 1500 by "The Neutrals," an offshoot of the Iroquois nation, who refused to participate in their wars. They retreated to this site, built earthwork walls and redoubts They steadily expanded them, and survived there until Mohawk and Seneca raids wiped them out in 1650.

 

Having drained my last water bottle during my Southwold exploration, I was relieved to find another rustic General Store in Fingal. The clerk and a pair of customers put their heads together and confirmed that there were accommodations in Port Stanley. They recommended the Inn at the Harbour, but when I stopped there, after screaming down a steeply winding road to the mouth of Kettle Creek, I was told bluntly that I couldn’t put my bike in my room. When I asked if there was a secure place where I could lock it, the receptionist grinned smugly and said, "Sorry," like she didn’t mean it.

 

I said "Good-bye," like I did mean it.

 

Just up the road, the Kettle Creek Inn was more than accommodating. Perhaps this is because Jean Strickland, who owns the Inn with her ex-husband, Gary Bedova, is an avid cyclist herself. In fact, she recently finished a 4,400 mile ride from Istanbul to Beijing. Her son, Dean, told me that Jean had suffered a heart attack a few years ago. "That changed her life," he said. She devoted herself to fitness, and to pursuing the sort of adventures most of us keep relegated to the realm of dreams.

 

The Kettle Creek Inn was originally built in 1849 as a summer home. In 1918 it opened as the Port Stanley Inn, and was renovated and enlarged in 1983 and 1990. Today it offers ten rooms and five suites, with two additional buildings surrounding an attractive garden and gazebo offering outdoor dining. Inside there are two dining rooms and an English-style pub. The staff is friendly and happy to make their guests feel at home, and the dining is top notch. I had a Lake Ontario Trout Cake with a Pelee Island Sauvignon Blanc, and beef tenderloin with sauteed fresh vegetables and garlic and horseradish mashed potatoes.

DAY THREE: Port Stanley to Dunnville, ONT

Distance: 108.92 Miles

When I set out this morning I was immediately launched into an ascent as steep as yesterday’s concluding descent. With 160 miles on my legs in two days, and no time to loosen up, it wasn’t long before I surrendered to the grade. I had to walk the second half of the slope. But, no matter. I decided long ago that there is no shame in walking.

It was very foggy again, but unlike yesterday, there were virtually no cars at all. It was a wonderfully mystical setting, with bands of fog in the distance. Gazing across a field at a tree line, the bottom third was obscured by fog. The middle third was clearly visible, but another band covered the rest. The sun struggled to burn through, and eventually did, but not before casting the sky in an ethereal peach/gold hue. When the sun managed to break free of the fog, it burned away the morning chill. Before long it was hot. It turned into a six water bottle day.

I rode for 24 miles along Lake Erie, through cornfields, soy bean fields, tobacco fields and hay fields. The workers were harvesting the tobacco, heaping bundles on flatbed wagons and loading them into the distinctive drying sheds.

I stopped in Port Burwell for breakfast. The town had a dysfunctional feel to it, as if it were Port Stanley’s ne’er-do-well brother. A once-prosperous port community, it now survives on tourists who come for the miles of sandy beaches. Several of the businesses were for sale, and a couple restaurants were permanently closed. The one that was open served a decent breakfast though, and those three eggs, bacon and hash browns gave me energy until well past noon.

The north coast of Lake Erie is dotted with little towns, most called Port Something. Most are nonentities, little more than smudges on the map. Each of them is located at the mouth of a creek, some of which are broad as rivers. It may be because they are so short, rising on the ridge not far inland, that they don’t qualify as rivers. The road travels along the bluff overlooking the lake, and then swoops precipitately down to the town. After a quick transit of the river over a bridge, the road begins its ascent around a hairpin turn back to the top of the bluff.

About eight miles past Port Burwell I came to the Sand Hills, a collection of sand dunes along the shore. Now a private park, it offers camping, hiking, and swimming. There is a $5 day use fee, but the man at the gate said I could go in for free since I only wanted to look around. The dunes are tall and severe, their slopes carved by the insistent wind. They bore a sense of desolation, on a weekday in September, after all the children had returned to school. A worthwhile stop.

Continuing east I passed a sign announcing that I was entering the Long Point Biosphere, which is rather a grandiose title for wild life refuge. Long Point is a thin spit of shifting sand extending some twenty miles into Lake Erie. It harbors vast marshlands on its leeward side, and is a mecca for birdwatchers from around the world.

The day kept growing hotter, but what little wind there was blew from the west, gentling me along my way. The land here is quite tame, except for the sudden dips into derelict towns. At Normandale I stopped at yet another General Store for yet another bottle of water to replenish my supplies. The town had that sleepy feeling to which I was growing accustomed. Founded in 1815 by John Mason, it rose to prominence in 1828 when Joseph van Norman turned it into Canada’s leading iron production center. Two decades later, with the ore played out, and the timber all harvested, Normandale lapsed back into obscurity, known today only by a handful of cottage owners.

The ride was covering more miles than I had expected, following the undulating shoreline. By the time I made it to Port Dover it was close to 3:00 and I had already covered 72 miles. It was time to stop, but I was still too far from Port Colborne, where the Niagara Region Circle Route began. I was looking forward to a pleasant day of exploring the Welland Canals and the Lake Ontario shore, and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I had to ride 50 miles just to get to the beginning.

Port Dover is a bustling town, Ontario’s leading sport fishing center, and home to the largest freshwater fishing fleet in the world. It also has the world’s worst Visitor Information Center. I stopped in to find out how far it was to Dunnville or Port Colborne, and whether there were any motels or inns along the way. The desk was unoccupied, but there was a woman on the phone in the office. She saw me through the open connecting window, but made no acknowledgment of my presence. For the next fifteen minutes she continued her personal conversation while I searched for a brochure which might provide an answer. Eventually a townie walked in. She waved at him and pointed at the phone welded to her ear.

So I asked him my questions. No, there’s nothing between here and Dunnville. How far is Dunnville. "Fifty–" he hesitated, then said, "Miles," as if proud to remember that we Yanks don’t use kilometers. Only later, when I decided to press on in defiance of common sense, did I discover that while he had made the terminological translation, he hadn’t done the math. It was only thirty-two miles.

I wasted some miles and a little more time pedaling around the town looking for an inn before deciding to go for it. When I got back out on the open road, after a five mile detour around a massive US Steel plant, the wind had freshened, and blew at my back, pushing me down the road at close to 20 miles an hour. Still, approaching exhaustion, even making good time, it became harder to stay on the bike. Saddle sore and road weary, my breaks became more frequent, and lasted longer. Though at first seeking out shady places to stop, eventually I was reduced to getting off and sweltering in the sun, seeking rest that would not come.

It was with a great sense of achievement and relief that I entered the town of Dunnville. Located on the banks of the aptly name Grand River, it had assumed an aura of greatness in my mind as I struggled toward it. So it was with a sense of dismay that I crossed the bridge and found a moribund town. I gave up almost immediately on the idea of a reprising my Kettle Creek Inn experience. I pedaled around in search of a gas station where I could find out where the motels were, having resigned myself to a Motel 6 with an Applebees nearby. There were no gas stations. So I started looking for sentient beings whom I could ask. I found none, only a senior citizen who almost ran me over while leaving a Basic Foods parking lot. He scanned the road for cars, and seeing none, pulled out. Fortunately, having watched his eyes, I was already putting on my brakes as he accelerated. Over 106 miles at this point, I was too tired even to yell at him.

I headed out of town to the east where I found a rapid return to farmland. Back to town and then north on the Grand River Scenic Parkway. A pedestrian told me there were a couple motels "not too far away." The first, Riverview Motel, was about a mile up the road. Seedy looking, with only a carryout pizza nearby as a dinner option, it didn’t look promising. I continued another mile to The Inn on the Grand, which was even seedier. There was a rusted, battered bus parked in front of three units, looking like something out of a Road Warrior movie. Other rooms had hibachis in front of them. The sign said "No Vacancy." Lucky me. Back to the Riverview. At $66 it was the cheapest room so far, but it was by far the most over-priced.

When I asked about an ice machine I was told there was a freezer in my room. There was. It wasn’t working. Because it wasn’t plugged in. It wasn’t plugged in because it had a three-pronged plug, and the outlet only had two slots. Someone had laid the plug next to the outlet, perhaps reasoning that enough electricity would make the leap to power the fridge. Probably the Riverview’s interior decorator had argued against three-slot outlets because they would clash with the fifties-era decor.

Eventually, showered and rehydrated, and now so hungry that even paper-thin soggy pizza sounded good, I headed out. On the way I met a man on the sidewalk who told me there was a good place to eat just a mile down the road. There it was, the Queen’s Hotel. A faded brick structure, the ground floor was covered with wooden siding which had seen better days. No wonder I had missed it. By now I was desperate. I walked inside where I was greeted by a large portrait of Queen Victoria in the reception room. Quaint dining rooms opened on both sides, but there was nobody there. In the distance I heard voices and wandered through two more rooms before I found a cluster of locals sitting around the bar in yet another dining room called The Merritt Room.

I had a delicious steak, along with a Caesar Salad, and chatted with the other patrons. After dinner I spoke with the owner, Jo-Ann Cole, who was gradually restoring the place. Though the hotel wasn’t yet operational, that was definitely on her to-do list. "But first I want to get the food right." She told me the hotel was built in 1837 by William Henry Merritt, the father of the Welland Canal. Merritt had discovered and fallen in love with Dunnville during happier days when he had arrived in 1829 to build a feeder canal to the Welland Canal.

As the Welland canal was nearing completion, the final portion collapsed. The ground was too unstable to dig sufficiently deep to tap into the Welland River. The alternative was to dig a 28-mile-long trench from the Grand River. Using hundreds of laborers, this was accomplished in a matter of months. The Welland Canal was opened and the shape of Great Lakes transportation was changed forever.

Jo-Ann told me there was a little-traveled road which ran alongside the feeder canal, all the way to the Welland, where I could pick up the Niagara Region Circle Route. So my plans changed, and my impression of Dunnville was materially brightened. Still, on the walk back to my ratty little room, I couldn’t help but remark on the contrast of the town as it was with the vast potential of its setting and history.

DAY FOUR: Dunnville to Niagara-on-theLake

Distance: 61.14 miles

After its completion in 1829, the feeder canal was widened and served as a barge canal, tying the Grand River into the Welland system. When the Welland Canal was rebuilt in 1845 to accommodate larger freighters, the feeder canal no longer connected with the waterway, yet it remained in use until World War I. At that time it lapsed into neglect. It still exists, however, in spots as a ditch filled with march grass and reeds, but in other places it comprises a series of ponds which serve as a haven for birds and other wildlife.

The Canal Bank Road diverged from Highway 3 about four miles south of town, and offered ideal riding conditions all the way to Welland. Here the canal disappeared, but before long, the original canal appeared. No longer needed for transportation, it now serves as a splendid course for rowing competitions. The Niagara Boat Club operates the largest course.

It was here that I picked up the Niagara Region Circle Route. The Niagara Region Circle Route runs north from Port Colborne to the end of the Welland Canal, then east to Niagara-on-the-Lake on the Waterfront Trail, south to Fort Erie on the Niagara Recreation Trail, and finally west back to Port Colborne on the Heritage Trail. It runs 88 miles, and so can be done in a day, but take two, to enjoy the sites. Paved trails run along both sides of the old canal for several miles before joining the modern Welland at Port Robinson. On the east side the trail rolls along beneath an avenue of mature trees, with the canal on the left and the Welland River flowing on the right, some fifteen feet below. At one point the canal crosses the river on an aqueduct.

There are seven locks on the Welland Canal, a vast improvement over the forty sported by the original. This was some of the most enjoyable riding of the entire trip. The trail sloped first steeply down the Niagara Escarpment, and then gently all the way to Lake Ontario. Each of the locks was vast, amazing constructions large enough to hold the biggest Great Lakes freighter. The Cedarglen was rising in the sixth canal as I rode past.

The other locks were empty until Lock 3, where there is an observation deck and museum. While I was there a 30-foot fishing boat entered the lock. It looked tiny inside the huge vat, which began to filled rapidly as I watched.

I crossed a bridge over the final lock, and headed east on the Waterfront Trail, which I would follow eight miles to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Before long I saw a sign for the 9/11 Memorial Walkway, and followed the lane to the Ontario shore. There I found a gravel path snaking along between two rows of native Canadian trees. Each was planted in memory of the 27 victims who either had been Canadians or had strong Canadian ties. It was poignant, on this day, just one week before the seventh anniversary, to read the stories of those memorialized here. It will be interesting to return in twenty years to see the walkway once the trees have matured.

The Waterfront Trail mainly runs along Route 87, the Lake Shore Road. It consists of that Canadian rarity, a wide shoulder. The riding was easy, and the countryside consisted of orchards and vineyards, with a winery or fruit stand popping up every 100 yards it seemed. I stopped at one, and asked if I could buy just one peach. "Sure," the woman said. How much? "You can have it." It was a white flesh peach, and it was delicious. I told her I didn’t know if it was because I’d already ridden 100 kilometres, or because it was free, but it was the best peach I had ever tasted.

A little further along I stopped at the Konzelmann Winery, where the grapevines grew in rows to the water’s edge. A lovely setting, and the tasting room was inside a building built to resemble a giant dovecote. I tasted a Reisling, a Gewurztraminer and a Pinot Noir. Niagara region wineries are similar to those in northern Michigan in the syles of wines they produce, which are determined by the climate of both regions. When I remarked on the surprising boldness of the Pinot Noir, which was much more complex than any I had tasted in Michigan, the host admitted that it was supplemented with grapes from Argentina.

Entering Niagara-on-the-Lake I found a sprawl of cars creeping along the High Street, with hordes of pedestrians hindering their progress and hundreds more it seemed pouring out of tour buses every minute. For once it was a great advantage to be on a bike as I made so much better time than the cars. It took me awhile to find a place to stay, as I shunned the more deluxe places for those more modest, only to find the modest ones ran in excess of $300 a night. How much, I wondered, did the grand hotels cost? Substantially less, I discovered when I inquired at the Prince of Wales Hotel. This was a robust three story structure which dominated the street scape across from the park, and stretched the entire block, having gobbled up all the buildings in its path.

It had been a surprisingly easy 60 miles today. I was concerned how it would be setting out, having ridden 200 miles the previous two days while training for no more than 60. Perhaps because it was cool and cloudy in the morning it made it easier, but I had no problems on the road. However, it was a different story at the end. After a shower and change into civilian garb, I set out to explore the town. I made it halfway around the block before I gave up. My legs were so tired, and, realized, with only a power bar and a peach to eat, I was starving. Fortunately there was an Irish Pub right there, appropriately called The Irish Pub.

I staggered inside and ordered a Smithwick’s Ale with the last of my strength. After a few sips I was sufficiently restored to inquire about food. Perusing the menu, I settled on a traditional Irish pub dish of Buffalo Chicken Wings. While I was licking my fingers a man walked in and asked, in a thick Irish brogue, how the wings were. I mumbled my approval, and we got to talking. His name was Mickey. A Great Lakes merchant marine, he was taking the year off to roam around Canada. Basically what he seemed to do is drink. He had come to town two weeks ago, planning to stay for two days. He said he didn’t know when he would leave, there were too many bars within walking distance. After hearing his stories of growing up in Belfast, where he learned, eventually, the importance of just getting along, of walking away from a fight, and of "not beating the shiite out of you just because I can," I declined his offer to accompany him as he went off to check out another bar he’d heard about. I wished him luck and went on my way.

Feeling restored by my Buffalo Wings, I thought I now had enough energy to go find a place to eat dinner. Wandering along the crowded High Street, wending my way through mobs waiting to get into restaurants or for shows to open, I studied the menu at each place I saw, and finally decided, while acknowledging the irony of it, to have a pizza at Bistro Six-One.

DAY FIVE: Niagara-on-the-Lake to Niagara Falls, ONT

Distance: 25.08 miles

Leaving Niagara-on-the-Lake I passed Fort George where I learned a bit of the city’s history. Established in 1778 by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, it had thrived in the early days as a shipping center and farm community. During the War of 1812, when the British and Americans fought all along the Niagara Gorge, American troops invaded the city and burned it to the ground. Rebuilt following the cessation of hostilities exclusively in the style of an English city, the historic center of Niagara-on-the-Lake retains the genteel atmosphere of nineteenth-century England.

The actions and atrocities of that long-forgotten conflict are lost to most Americans. While they remain more fresh in Canadian memories, it doesn’t prevent the merchants and hoteliers along the Niagara River from welcoming the hordes of American tourists who flock to the region.

The Niagara River Gorge is crammed with historical and geologic significance. As the trail scales the Niagara Escarpment the cliffs grow higher and steeper, and the river narrows. Carrying all the waters of the Great Lakes between its banks, the Niagara River features some of the most ferocious rapids in the world.

A favorite site, some three miles north of Niagara Falls, is the White Water Walk, a 1/4 mile long boardwalk alongside the churning rapids. Tourists have been visiting the white water since 1876, when a steam-powered incline railway provided access. After the railway and its station burned in 1932, the Niagara Parks Commission built an 230-foot-deep elevator shaft and 240-foot-long tunnel to the river’s edge. The walkway was subject to frequent washouts before hydroelectric projects on both sides of the river diverted half the river volume. Portions of the original walkway are still visible much higher up the cliff than the current boardwalk.

The bike trail ends at the White Water Walk, forcing cyclists to negotiate the lunatic bustle of Niagara Falls at the edge of the road. Since this is one of the world’s great attractions, there are always so many people there that traffic crawls along, presenting very little hazard to bike riders. Ever since the first tourists arrived at the falls promoters and hucksters have busily conspired to devise means of separating them from their money. Though the tacky arcade attractions have been pushed further up the hill, the original spirit continues undiminished as there are now two casinos overlooking the falls. It has always struck me as ironic that, given the spectacular nature of the scene, even at half volume, the attitude of developers has been "We have to come up with a way to amuse these people." Looking at the falls themselves should be amusement enough to last a lifetime.

The day’s plan was to ride down to Fort Erie, and then back up to Niagara Falls, an easy forty-five miles, all on bike trails. There Mary would pick me up and we would head over to Buffalo for the 31st Annual Antique & Classic Boat show at the Buffalo Launch Club. Plans changed quickly when Tropical Storm Hannah decided if she could make it in New York she could make it anywhere. While the heavy rain was limited to the Atlantic coast, and even the light stuff held off until later in the day, she announced her arrival with a gale blowing up from the south. My first taste of headwinds on this trip was enough to alter my plans.

I only made it 5 miles below Niagara Falls. At the end of a bridge over the intake pond for the Niagara Region Hydroelectric plant, there was a down slope followed by a sharp left turn. When I made the turn the wind hit me broadside. It nearly blew the bike out from under me. I could feel the tires slipping on the pavement, and decided that was enough. I knew I could cover the next fifteen miles, I just couldn’t figure out why I needed to. I had nothing to prove. Instead I turned around and headed back north. I probably turned my pedals a total of six times that last five miles, and coasted along average 10 miles and hour. It was the perfect end to an ideal trip.

 

The woods are buggy, dark and deep--glen lake to grand rapids, july, 2005

Having crashed and burned in Pittsburgh on the way to Washington back in May, I decided to ease my wounded spirit with a brief jaunt from Glen Lake down to Grand Rapids. The trip was an outgrowth of daughter Emily’s banishing us from our cottage on the night of July 2, the occasion being a party to commemorate her 21st birthday. For some reason she believed the presence of her parents might inhibit her enjoyment of her first legal drinking party. I suggested Grand Rapids as I had been interested in seeing the exhibition on the lost city of Petra, at Calvin College. Shortly after that I realized that this was a splendid opportunity to ride the White Pine Trail, which runs 93 miles from Cadillac to Grand Rapids.

I did virtually no training for the trip, having been on my bike only five times since May 20, but I figured how hard could a two day trip be? Departure morning was June 30, and it dawned overcast, with a brisk wind blowing out of the north. At that point I realized I had forgotten to bring my waterproof with me. Mary, ever helpful, suggested punching holes through a garbage bag and wearing it as a poncho. This turned out to be the worst piece of advice she had given me since, back in college, during a visit to her home in Tucson, she suggested I rub baby oil on my skin before laying in the sun.

I set out at 6:15 am. There is nothing so exhilarating as greeting the rising sun on your bike. Glen Lake is situated a quarter-mile from Lake Michigan, and on the other three sides is ringed by steep hills. Unless I wanted to ride into the lake, my trip would necessarily start with a series of rigorous climbs. I was pleased with the relative ease with which I accomplished this task, benefitting from the wind at my back. Topping the last rise, a half hour into the trip, the storm clouds fulfilled their promise, and it started to rain. I gave Mary’s suggestion a try.

Half an hour later, I remembered that boxers wear plastic bags while riding a bike in order to make their weight. Bad idea, I realized. I wasn’t trying to lose a lot of water weight in a hurry. I stopped to remove the bag. As I did so, the rain stopped. I was dry, but I was soaking wet. I refilled my water bottle at a water fountain in a small park in the village of Lake Ann, and resumed my trip. As the rain stopped, so did the north wind. After a couple hours of calm, the wind resumed, this time from the south. It blew steadily harder as the day wore on, pushing heat back into air.

It was a pleasant ride for the first four hours. I stuck to small roads through gently undulating farmland, and through pleasant woods. There is something soothing about riding in Northern Michigan. The landscape is pleasing, and the roads are generally in good shape and not very busy. It has a sensibility more English than Swiss, I guess you could say. Because the wind was continuing to pick up, I tended to ride more easterly than southerly, until I realized that I needed to spend some time heading south if I didn’t want to spend the last twenty miles heading straight into the teeth of the wind.

I found a road on the map called Townline, which promised to run south for four or five miles. When I reached it, I discovered it was a dirt road. On the other hand, it went through deep woods, which would shield me from the wind. As I turned on Townline I noticed a sign announcing the trailhead for the North Country National Scenic Trail was up ahead. First I had ever heard of that, so I thought it was definitely worth a detour. About a mile along Townline the road turned to sand, forcing me to dismount. After four-and-a-half hours of steady riding, I was pretty hot, and must have glowed like a beacon to the winged denizens of the forest. As soon as I came to a halt a cloud of deer flies descended upon me. I was walking and half-running my bike along the sandy trail, jumping on it and pedaling whenever the surface firmed up, then jumping back off when I slewed into another sandy patch. Though deer flies have a vicious bite, they usually settle before biting, allowing the diligent observer time to swat them. But when both hands are devoted to holding the bike upright, and they number in the dozens, you don’t stand a chance. I pushed on, wishing I had a big, bushy tail to wave them away.

After another mile I came to the trailhead. I also came to a t-junction which wasn’t on the map. This part of Michigan is interlaced with small dirt roads which wind around endlessly. I have spent hours driving them, aided by a compass which enables me to continually move in the desired direction, even if I don’t know where I am. I really didn’t want to try that on a bike. Since the intersection was not overflown with insects, I sat down, pored over the map, and had a good swig of water while trying to decide what to do. The trail was broad, and seemingly bearing a firmer surface than the road, so I decided to take my chances on it.

I set off through a field of ferns, beneath a stand of Red Pines. This was fine for the first 600 yards or so, but then the trail made a sharp left turn at the top of a bluff which ran down to the Manistee River. The Manistee was deep and wide, and flowing at a good clip. The trail was narrow and ran along the edge of the cliff. There were rocks and roots sticking up from the ground. I figured it would be easy to tip over hitting one of them, and so decided to walk my bike. I followed the trail, which shortly opened up to a dirt road. After a half-mile of riding, it dipped back into the forest. It was an undulating trail, narrow, but rideable at slow speeds. At one point the ferns grew as high as my shoulders.

Continuing along the trail, with occasional glimpses of the river off to my right, I was forced to walk more than ride as it frequently descended ravines carved by small streams. Often the trail was so narrow and steep that I had to carry my bike. This was not the way I had drawn it up on the blackboard!

The trail was uncommonly beautiful, and I was profoundly alone. And I didn’t know where the hell I was. Still, it was only noon, I had a lot of time left, and I knew sooner or later I had to cross a road. However, it was growing hotter, and my water bottle was growing empty. All that water I lost wearing the plastic bag was coming back to haunt me. After another hour, it was still beautiful, but I wasn’t having fun anymore. I was thirsty and tired, but every time I tried to rest the deer flies attacked. By then my water was completely gone, and I was feeling as tired as I have ever been. The bike grew heavier as the trail grew steeper, and there were fewer spots where I could ride.

In one of them I found an old bicycle inner tube someone had tossed on a branch. As I grew closer I realized it was a large snake, coiled, black with a blue stripe. He didn’t seem interested in me, which was just fine. Still, it seemed like an omen, and I felt steadily worse. Then my chest felt tight, and wait! Was that a pain in my left arm? I stopped, wondering when someone else would come along the trail, and how mysterious they might find a corpse with a bicycle on a hiking trail.

I gave up some flesh to the flies as I rested and wondered what was wrong with me. Ultimately I decided that heart attacks aren’t a matter of speculation. I suspect people having one are pretty sure what it is. Like Aurora Borealis. You can wonder from time to time if that distant glow in the sky is Aurora Borealis, but when you finally see it, you know what it is. You don’t have to wonder if you are actually seeing it. It must be the same with heart attacks. What I was feeling was dehydration. Not the best of situations, but not critical, not yet.

I pushed on. I came to a clearing overlooking the river. There was a railroad crossing it, and a group of canoers down below. If not civilization, certainly not deep woods, either. A hundred yards further on I came to a fork in the trail, and a sign pointing to a campground. At least I could get water, I figured, and maybe find someone who could direct me back to the main road. I took the fork, but before I got to the campground I came to a road, which I followed to US 131. A busy highway, but with a broad shoulder, and I was happy to brave trucks and SUV’s for awhile.

The wind was now blowing fiercely, and I was still out of water. When I reached a cross road I checked my map and discovered that my fears had been realized, and I had twenty miles to go into the wind. I slogged along at 8 miles an hour, forced to walk my bike up every hill because the wind prevented me from getting any momentum. In fact, reaching the crest of one hill, I mounted and started cycling through the gears. I was on the big sprocket, pedaling hard, and a gust of wind almost brought me to a halt. I reached the town of Manton and bought a bottle of water at a Dairy Bar. A mile further on I bought another one.

I limped into Cadillac around 4:45 pm. I stopped at a bench along the shore of Lake Cadillac to rest before going to the hotel. There was a sign at the beginning of the lakeside trail banning bicycles or skateboards. So I walked my bike to a bench. I sat there for about fifteen minutes. During that time five people passed walking their bikes, two kids passed carrying their skateboards, and only two pedestrians passed. I decided they had the wrong sign. It should say pedestrians, walk at your own risk.

I cycled up the hill to Hermann’s European Hotel, which is situated above Hermann’s European Café. A north country institution, Hermann’s features good food, a nice wine list, and a genuinely European feel. The hotel was a revelation. Neat, clean, very European except for the size of the rooms, which were huge. I had a huge bowl of pasta for dinner, drank half a bottle of wine, and was in bed by 8:30.

Up the next morning at 5:00, I read for awhile until the sky began to lighten, and set out under ominous skies for Grand Rapids. The White Pine Trail starts a block away from the hotel. The first four miles are paved, at which point the State Park begins. The trail consists for the most part of compressed gravel, and the state park is unique as it is 93 miles long, and never more than 50 yards wide. The trail exists thanks to the efforts of William Porteous, of Reed City. When the Penn Central and Grand Rapids and Indiana railroads pulled up their tracks in the early ‘80's, Porteous recalled reading in a forestry magazine about this new movement called rails to trails.

"I call it the missionary days of the trail," Porteous said. "We just kind of got a number of people in the area interested and went from there." Reed City was uniquely positioned for a rail trail as it was the intersection of the two rail lines. It took a lot of work, a lot of meetings, and a lot of luck, but eventually Porteous managed to get the state lined up behind them. Today the trail is paved from just above Reed City, for thirteen miles down to Big Rapids, and for another twenty miles leading into Grand Rapids.

Shortly after starting the trail I saw a black and white cat in the distance. It was frolicking on the trail, though as I got closer I discovered it was a mother skunk and six little skunklings. She looked awfully startled as I approached. I beseeched her to accept that I was merely passing, and in no way constituted a threat against her and her children. She obviously didn’t believe me, but fortunately, she ran into the bushes, abandoning her young. "What a skunk," I thought as I passed.

In Reed City the White Pine Trail crosses the Pere-Marquette Trail, and the intersection is paved in both directions, with road signs pointing out the destinations. With the exception of a ten mile stretch east of Farwell, you could ride your bicycle a hundred miles in any direction from this point, without ever having to travel on a road. Just south of Big Rapids is a 319-foot bridge over the Muskegon River. The river is broad and pensive at this point, as multiple islands divide it into numerous channels. I stood awhile and watched sandhill cranes and great blue herons ply their craft above and along the shores.

I saw many different birds along the trail, including goldfinches and cardinals, flycatchers and Black-Capped Chicadees, but the highlight was spotting two Baltimore Orioles in flight.

Just beyond the bridge I came to the Paris Fish Hatchery. Established in 1881, the hatchery provided fingerling salmon and brown trout for the states lakes and streams. They were delivered by train in distinctive red milk cans, until 1938, when they were shipped by truck.. The WPA expanded and renovated the fish hatchery during the depression, and it continued to operate until 1964. In the early 70's Mecosta County acquired it and turned it into a county park. Now they offer fee fishing, from a pool stocked with ten to twelve inch brown trout. In another pool much larger brown trout swim, and in a further pool there are steelheads up to three feet long. The pools are concrete channels and the water gurgles happily as it flows. There are also two bird ponds, and a much smaller replica of the Eiffel Tower constructed thirty years ago by a shop class at Paris High School.

Throughout the day black clouds scudded past overhead, always threatening, but never actually raining. The wind blew briskly out of the west, but rarely affected me as I was heading south, and for the most part, shielded by trees lining the trail. The wind and clouds kept the day cool, with temperatures in the low seventies. Almost perfect cycling weather.

The trail was in pretty good shape, except for a twenty-mile stretch between Stanwood and Morley, where it was badly chewed up by horses (though they are banned from the trail), and so sandy in spots that I had to walk the bike. Later I learned that there is an Amish community in Morley which uses the trail for their buggies. Nice for them, lousy for us.

As I approached Rockford, which is such a pretty and prosperous little town I couldn’t believe I was still in Michigan, my rear tire went flat. I figured that the patch I put on it in Pittsburgh had probably loosened after I jounced over some rough patches on the trail. I got the flat in Pittsburgh just after some of the most harrowing riding I have ever done, on a busy four lane highway at rush hour, through a four mile stretch in which road construction had thrown a concrete barrier right up against the edge of the right lane. I just had to pedal, there was no way out, as cars zipped past six inches away. I had to consciously will myself not to think about all the things that could go wrong. An untimely swerve, a sudden unavoidable pothole (of which there were many), a scrape against the barrier, any one of which would have resulted in my death.

When I got the flat I had to take everything off the bike, remove the wheel and inner tube. That was when I discovered I had the wrong tube for the tire. Twice I’ve had flats on the road, the first being in Windsor, Ontario, on my way to Ithaca, and both times, I had the wrong inner tube. So I patched it then, and it held up until I was four miles north of Rockford.

I pumped up the tire, hoping it would hold. After 82 miles, I really didn’t feel like changing the tube. It held until I reached Rockford, and went flat as I crossed Main Street. Resigned to a half-hour of repairs, I was relieved to see a bike shop a block away. They were happy to change it for me. I even bought another tube, thereby retaining my spare, and I was on my way again.

The trail around Rockford is paved, and quite pleasant. It follows the Grand River southward, through very pretty woodlands, before ending in Comstock Park, where the Fifth-Third Park, home to the West Michigan White Cap minor league baseball team, is located. Just north of Comstock Park I caught up with Ken and Judy Kolk, riding recumbent bikes. I rode along with them as Ken described the benefits of this new bike technology, and gave me some of the history of the trail. They showed me how to pick up the North Park Street trail which ties into Grand Rapids’ Riverside Park trail network. Nice people, very friendly, and exactly the kind of diversion I needed to take my mind off the fact that I was approaching 100 miles, and my left knee was screaming in pain.

Ken pointed out the Ann Street bridge, which crossed the Grand River at the point where the trail gave out. A Radisson Hotel beckoned me from the other side. When I reached the hotel my odometer read 99.75 miles, so I tooled around the parking lot until I had achieved my sixth solo century.

 

smith's crossing elegy

I left Midland, MI, in the early morning chill on the third day of my annual trans-Michigan bicycle trip. My chosen route took me along the Titabawassee River Road. Titabawassee is an Indian term meaning "river that runs along the shore," the shore being that of Saginaw Bay. So the River Road, running alongside the river, replicates a course which replicates the shoreline. Before long I came to Smith's Crossing Road, running eastward to the river.

The intersection summoned images of horses and wagons, goods and families moving east and west. The settlers who homesteaded the land passed this way. The lesser commerce of the growing state crossed here, on Mr. Smith's ferry. Not the major stock in trade, not the lumber ripped from the virgin white pine forests; that was too big to travel by road. The logs flowed down the rivers, or rode the rails to lumber mills and steamships. It was the corn, and the potatoes, the rough- hewn furniture and homespun clothing which, carted on wagons, crossed the Titabawassee. Only goods of lesser value traveled by road, for that was the age when machines cost more than people did.

When I reached the crossing I saw, to my left, a sign: Dead End. Bridge Out. It must be the bridge which replaced the ferry. It was worth a detour to see what had become of Mr. Smith's dream, so I rode down a country lane, lined by eighties-vintage housing, which gathered like chicks around the mother hen, the obligatory ramshackle farmhouse. The desperate bid to save the farm by selling off the land denied once more, now bentgrass and fescue, rhododendrons and daisies grow where once cornfields stood. And the farmhouse porch sags in disrepair.

At the end of the lane, a yellow steel bar, bent by careless drivers, blocks the road. Barred and chained, the lock is rusted now. There are no plans to repair this bridge. I step over the bar, and continue on foot the journey no longer licit for the vehicles for which it was created. The asphalt roadway is overgrown by creeping vines, and wildflowers sprout in the cracks. Chicory blooms, and soapwort, and wild aster and goldenrod. The roadbed curves to the right, and the bridge appears. A rusting double trestle blocked by a 6-foot high sheet of corrugated steel decorated with spray painted obscenities.

There are gaps in the barrier through which the roadway is visible. The bridge is narrow, the asphalt crumbling, giving way in places. Foot-wide gaps yawn over the placid river below, like some more stolid version of the cinematic jungle cliche. The river is brown, the current running deep. Except for chittering birds, and squirrels threshing the forest floor nearby, it is silent here, leaving me to contemplate Mr. Smith's dream. The people, the lives that crossed the river here, finding here a way station in the fulfillment of the state's, of the nation's destiny, were swept away in the name of progress when steel girders and asphalt replaced the ferry. Then traffic flowed unknowingly over the span.

Now, at the edge of the bridge's Ozymandian decay, only ashes from illicit campfires and the many-hued tags of misbegotten youth, and everywhere the dying vines, adorn the crypt of Mr. Smith's forgotten dream.

 

Bike Lanes in Grosse Pointe? Why Not?

    When it comes to outdoor recreation, there is a troubling disconnect between Grosse Pointe municipalities and their residents. Except on the coldest days of winter, runners, walkers, strollers and bicyclists are a common sight on local streets and sidewalks, especially along Windmill Pointe, Grosse Pointe Boulevard and Lakeshore. Yet you would be hard pressed to find even an occasional “Share the Road” sign in the points.
    While Macomb and Oakland Counties are actively expanding and extending a network of recreational paths, and, according to a recent “Metro Times” article, even the City of Detroit is establishing more than 400 miles of dedicated bike lanes and routes, the Pointes refuse to acknowledge the growing popularity of such outdoor pursuits.
    It can be argued that economic reality precludes the expenditure of funds necessary to establish such a system in the Grosse Pointes. However, there is merit to the idea of piecemeal implementation. The City of Grosse Pointe Farms could get the ball rolling by painting bike lanes on Moross Road, from Krogers to Ridge Road. The labor would be minimal, and the cost of a handful of signs negligible.
    Bike lanes would do far more than merely enhancing cyclists’ safety. As Moross is one of the gateway routes into the community, their presence would present the community as friendly, healthy and committed to its residents’ safety. Another benefit of bike lanes is slower traffic speeds along Moross.
     As currently configured, Moross is not wide enough for four lanes. Yet it is too wide for a 30-mph speed limit to be practical. Painting bike lanes would limit the road to one  traffic lane in each direction. This would make the existing limit more realistic, thereby reducing the time public safety officers are forced to devote to speed enforcement.
    Once the ball is rolling, we can develop a community-wide network of bike lanes and bike routes. While it would be nice to see the Grosse Pointes provide funding for them, private sector financing is feasible. The Grosse Pointe Foundations could help defray the costs, and money could be raised through an annual public ride throughout the Grosse Pointes.
    It could be called the Grosse Pointe 20, after the circuit known to many cycling afficionados which, from just about any spot in the Pointes, takes 20 miles to complete. The route could be closed for four hours, allowing sufficient time for each participant to complete one circuit. More advanced riders could face the Grosse Pointe Century Challenge, which would require five laps at an average of 25 mph. Not only would the Grosse Pointe 20 help raise funds for the implementation of dedicated bike routes, it would raise the profile of recreational cycling, help educate the public on the need to share the road, and develop the Grosse Pointes’ reputation as a bike-friendly community.
    The Grosse Pointe 20 is something to consider further down the road, but bike lanes on Moross Road can be done immediately. It is rare to find a solution which costs very little money, helps control traffic speed, improves bicycle safety, and puts the community on the right side of the transportational divide.